Bill’s Bizarre Bijou Takes a Swim in SWAMP WATER (1941)
Bill’s Bizarre Bijou
William D. Carl
This Week’s Feature Presentation:
SWAMP WATER (1941)
Welcome to Bill’s Bizarre Bijou, where you’ll discover the strangest films ever made. If there are alien women with too much eye-shadow and miniskirts, if papier-mâché monsters are involved, if your local drive-in insisted this be the last show in their dusk-till-dawn extravaganza, or if it’s just plain unclassifiable—then I’ve seen it and probably loved it. Now, I’m here to share these little gems with you, so you too can stare in disbelief at your television with your mouth dangling open. Trust me, with these flicks, you won’t believe your eyes!
It’s ninety-five degrees outside as I write this, and it’s so humid you could cut the air with a knife. Therefore, the weather is dictating my summer choice of a trilogy of swamp movie reviews over the next month. What better time to remember the great swamp pictures than when they used to be shown at the local drive-ins, complete with terrier-sized mosquitoes (unless you bought one of those coiled smoke thingies)?
Jean Renoir was the son of famous Impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir, and he was also considered France’s greatest living director in the 1930s. He directed, and most often wrote, one masterpiece after another, films that would still be studied and adored in the next century, films like BOUDU SAVED FROM DROWNING (1932), THE LOWER DEPTHS (1936), LA GRANDE ILLUSION (1937), and LA BETE HUMAINE (1938). In 1939, he made THE RULES OF THE GAME, a comedy of manners and a harsh indictment against the bourgeois and pretty much any other class system. The film infuriated the French, who truly take their cinema to heart, and it also disturbed the Nazis, who occupied the country at the time, with its left-wing politics. The film was a flop, and Renoir decided if he was going to keep making movies, he would immigrate to America, thus escaping the Nazis’ condemnation, while still retaining his director’s chair, only this time in Hollywood. He arrived in New York City with his wife and the author of “The Little Prince,” Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Within weeks, he was in Hollywood, signed to Twentieth Century Fox by Francophile Darryl F. Zanuck. What would be his first film in the United States? A great war film? An ant-Nazi drama? A brilliant, elegant comedy? No, it was a swamp picture: SWAMP WATER (1941) written by Dudley Nichols, who had just had several hits like BRINGING UP BABY (1938) and STAGECOACH (1939), and based on the Saturday Evening Post pot-boiler by Vereen Bell.
In the Okefenokee Swamp, 700 miles of marsh and cypress, Dana Andrews (LAURA – 1944 and CURSE OF THE DEMON – 1957) is Ben, a young man who loses his dog, Trouble (uh-oh, foreshadowing?) while searching for a couple of missing trappers on the edge of the swamp. Not finding him, he returns home to his father Thursday (Walter Huston of THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE – 1948 and THE FURIES – 1950) and his stepmother Hannah, played by Mary Howard (LOVE FINDS ANDY HARDY – 1938 and ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS – 1940). Trouble hasn’t returned home, but when Ben says he’s going into the swamp to find Trouble, his Pa goes plumb crazy, shouting and telling him if he goes into the swamp he shouldn’t ever come home again. He would be disinherited (from what, I wonder, the old shack they live in?) On his way, he runs into Mabel, his girlfriend, a high-falutin’ woman who yearns for a better life, played by Virginia Gilmore of THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES (1942). He gets supplies at the general store, where we meet the rest of the town . . . Marty, who owns the store (the great Russell Simpson of THE GRAPES OF WRATH – 1940 and SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS-1954), two nasty characters, the Dorson Brothers, on their way to drown a bag of kittens (!) played by Ward Bond (IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE – 1946 and THE SEARCHERS – 1956) and Guinn Williams (a heavy in many Westerns, including THE ALAMO – 1960) and a beautiful, wild young woman, the ward (or slave) of the shopkeeper. Played with a great naiveté by Anne Baxter (ALL ABOUT EVE -1950 and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS- 1956), Julie is a wildcat, a girl abandoned by her father: a convicted murderer who fled into the swamp and is presumed dead. It’s a rough bunch.
Our hero goes on his search for his missing dog into the heart of the swamp, and Renoir actually filmed this on location, unheard of in a film of this time. The cypress trees, the algae, the water, the sweat, the alligators, and the beautiful play of light on everything is simply gorgeous and stifling. I can almost feel the fecund air until Ben comes across, who else, Julie’s father, the escaped killer Tom Keefer, played by three time Oscar winner Walter Brennan (STAGECOACH – 1939 and THE WESTERNER – 1941.) Trouble, it seems, has taken a shine to old Tom, who is hiding out in the deep swamp from the law, but the old man can’t let Ben go back to civilization and reveal where he is. He ties the boy to a tree and prepares to kill him, but he’s bitten in the face by a cottonmouth, and he falls unconscious. Ben decides to bury the man, the only proper thing to do, when the old escapee revives. “If I’da let them things kill me,” he says. “I’da been dead a long time ago.” For the young man’s kindness, Tom shows Ben the way out of the swamp.
Meanwhile, local horndog Jesse Wick, played by John Carradine (hundreds of movies) is hitting on Hannah while her husband’s looking for Ben. His father beats the hide off of him, so Ben takes up in a shack near the general store, where he starts to become closer to the wildcat Julie and makes a living by trapping furs in the Okefenokee. This, of course, infuriates Mabel, who decides to go to a dance with a Dorson Brother. Ben accompanies Julie, who cleans up really well! Ben informs her that her father’s alive, so she starts keeping house for him.
Jesse tries to rape Hannah, but is almost caught by Thursday, who blames his wife. She can’t say who it is, because she knows Thursday will kill him and she doesn’t want the guilt. Thursday goes on a quest to find out who his wife is protecting.
It doesn’t take long before the wicked Dorson Brothers and the jealous Mabel get Ben in a headlock and try to drown him, until he tells them Tom is hiding out in the Okefenokee. Turns out, they know more about the murder than anyone thought, and they go into the swamp to kill Tom Keefer and shut him up. They’re followed by the sheriff and a posse as well as Ben and Jesse. The manhunt through the darkened swamp is creepy and quite terrifying. Will Ben get to Tom in time to warn him? Will Tom believe the young man or blame him for the men tracking him through quicksand and gator nests?
I won’t give away the ending, but after ninety minutes of dark drama and suspense, it comes out of left field to please wartime audiences. Zanuck didn’t think anyone would want to see a realistic ending, so he tacked on a sunny bit that seems awfully unrealistic, but it does still work. Zanuck must have known what he was doing. Despite his tampering and Jean Renoir’s dissatisfaction with his whole Hollywood experience, SWAMP WATER was one of the five top grossing movies of the year. Renoir would return to some of the same themes in THE SOUTHERNER (1945 ) and get nominated for an Oscar.
Even with all the cornpone dialog, SWAMP WATER is filled with terrific performances, especially the luminescent Walter Brennan, who just owns every scene he’s in and Anne Baxter, who plays the feral Julie in a way that makes you want to protect her yourself. Dana Andrews is a bit hopeless at the beginning as an innocent young man, but he evolves into a full grown adult whose heart is too big for the small town he lives in. The transformation is subtle, but quite wonderful. John Carradine turns in a performance full of terror and shame, a man who can’t help what he is and is too frightened of life to change.
The photography is brilliant black and white, with long depths and wavering firelight or dappled sunlight on everything. Cinematographer J. Peverell Marley (HOUSE OF WAX-1953 and THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES-1939) uses Renoir’s trademark long takes and constantly moving camera. As beautiful as it is, Marley was a replacement for original photographer Lucien Ballard (THE WILD BUNCH and TRUE GRIT – both 1969), who was fired. It looks like an art film but it has the Tobacco Road plot of a Southern exploitation hit, so SWAMP WATER is an odd flick, but extremely moving and beautiful piece of Faulkneresque Southern gothic.
Twilight Time has released a limited edition Blu-Ray of this classic swamp picture, and it’s a lulu. You can see every bead of sweat on every characters mug, every bug flying near the fires in the swamp, every grain of wood on the sad-looking shacks. It’s a magnificent restoration, and you can even isolate the musical score by David Buttolph (KISS OF DEATH -1947 and THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS – 1953), which samples the haunting Red River Valley. They only made 3,000, so if you want one, you need to hurry.
I give SWAMP WATER three and a half kittens in a bag out of four.
© Copyright 2012 by William D. Carl